Theater Review: “RoosevElvis” — Antic Americana

RoosevElvis turns out to a sort of slaphappy homage to two American legends, a genial romp that sticks to stereotypes.

RoosevElvis, created by Rachel Chavkin, Libby King, Jake Margolin, and Kristen Sieh. Directed by Chavkin. The TEAM staging presented by the American Repertory Theater at Oberon, Cambridge, MA, through May 29.

Kristen Sieh (Teddy Roosevelt) and Libby King (Elvis Presley) in the "RoosevElvis" at Oberon. Photo:

Kristen Sieh (Teddy Roosevelt) and Libby King (Elvis Presley) in the TEAM production of “RoosevElvis” at Oberon. Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva/A.R.T.

By Bill Marx

RoosveElvis, from the Brooklyn-based devised theater ensemble the TEAM, was a pleasant, though lightweight, surprise. Initially, my ‘dead white male’ warning system was on Red Alert. The show, at least in part, chronicles a contemporary road trip taken by good buddies Teddy Roosevelt and Elvis Presley; these archetypes of “American masculinity” (according to A.R.T. Artistic Director Diane Paulus) are played by TEAM members Libby King and Kristen Sieh. It was easy to imagine that these macho egomaniacs — arrogant, gun-crazed, warmongering — would not fare well in today’s politely liberal theater. No doubt Teddy’s big stick would be whittled down to size; Elvis’ wild hips would be chastened. My fear was a round-up of the usual anti-patriarchal potshots.

But RoosevElvis turns out to a sort of slaphappy homage to the two legends, a genial romp that sticks to stereotypes. Teddy and Elvis are oh-so-gently parodied, with all the clichés trotted out, from teddy bears to blue suede shoes, roasting wieners over a campfire to twisting the night away with Ann-Margaret. Teddy is the happy outdoorsman for whom environmentalism was a bit of an afterthought (he was talked into it by John Muir). Alas, his role as the turn-of-the-century’s Bernie Sanders is completely overlooked. Perhaps because it might offend the corporate moguls in the audience? From Teddy’s 1913 Autobiography: “The total absence of governmental control had led to a portentous growth in the financial and industrial world of natural individuals and of artificial individuals — that is, corporations. … In no other country in the world was such power held by the men who had gained these fortunes; and these men always worked through, and by means of, the giant corporations they controlled.” Elvis comes off as a childlike rocker who adored his mother and wanted to be a sheriff.

Most of the darker, more unsavory aspects of Teddy and Elvis’ lives — the drugs, the imperialism, the dependence — are either minimized or missing. The pair hardly bicker until very near the end of the show, and that petty riff is healed very quickly. They come off as comfy traveling companions, complimenting each other, eager for new adventures (though, unfortunately, no sexual conquests). King’s Elvis is a babyish Southern crooner with an amorphous mop of black hair, while Sieh’s Teddy strides the stage as a perky athletic wind-up toy sporting a handlebar mustache. The white male bullies are even given an exhilarating send-off (with some help from Hollywood) during a trip to the Grand Canyon. Masculinity’s destructive delusions of grandeur (along with America’s endemic self-importance) are indulged, smiled at, and sent on their merry way. These are a pair of mischievous cartoon dinosaurs heading off to extinction with panache.

All this offers chuckle-ly entertainment via a stand-up routine worthy of a late night comedy show on the History Channel. King and Sieh deliver their one liners with the savvy parry and deadpan thrust of Laurel and Hardy. Besides the central bromance there is a thin plotline that vaguely has to do with a couple of crucial (and trendy) issues — identity and empowerment. The downtrodden Ann (King) labors on an assembly line in an industrial slaughterhouse in North Dakota; she hooks up with the lively Brenda (Sieh) for a romantic auto trip through the Badlands. They break up. Brenda understandably finds Ann to be a nebbish who is uncomfortable with her gayness. Ann finally gets up the courage to head off solo to Graceland, a temple dedicated to her idol, Elvis.

The intention, I think, is that Elvis and Teddy should be seen as Ann’s fantasies of male-projected self-assertion — when she leaves her heroes behind she can finally begin to push herself forward, to begin her quest to be a liberated individual. This wan sub-plot would have been helped mightily if, a la the film Topper, Teddy and Elvis had showed up to give Ann some entertaining/bewildering advice on love and self-improvement. (Along the lines of Woody Allen’s Play it Again, Sam) Instead, the surreal narrative hops and skips without much direction: Elvis and Teddy pop up from time to time, then for some reason the spotlight returns to the lackadaisical courtship of Ann and Brenda. Frankly, given that there is so little payoff to Ann’s tentative triumph of the self, Teddy and Elvis steal the show.

Of course, RoosevElvis tacks to the conventional when it comes to the now de rigueur use of television sets. We are shown snippets from old movies, footage of Brenda and Ann hanging out in kitschy tourist spots, poking around Mount Rushmore, etc. There are a number of screens on stage, but they are small, so it is hard to make out the images. The necessity for the petite visuals is questionable. But we are in the Age of the Screen, so no ‘with it’ theater production fails to make use of its quota of eye-candy electronics. Another melancholic sign of the theatrical times — RoosevElvis is credited to four people. You are left with the impression that the script/production was cobbled together through a series of rehearsals/workshops, a collective improvisational effort. Nothing wrong with that — but at some point along the way a strong organizing sensibility must be applied. Without hard-headed decision making, you get a smattering of good ideas, spurts of self-indulgence, flickers of promise with too few solid rewards. RoosevElvis is amusing, but in terms of artistic discipline it could use more whacks from a big stick.

Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.

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